Reflected Glory

Kurt Jensen reviews "Reflected Glory", the unauthorized biography of Pamela Churchill Harriman by Sally Bedell Smith.

By Kurt Jensen

Published November 26, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Biographers are often knocked for devoting too much attention to pop psychologizing and not enough to "the work" -- the accomplishments that justify a book-length treatment of any life. In her tart new unauthorized biography of Pamela Churchill Harriman, biographer Sally Bedell Smith is refreshingly uninterested in exploring the inner child of the current U.S. Ambassador to France. The book has been cleansed of the Freudian spoor that clings to the cracks and footnotes of most current biographies.

This leaves Smith free to poke around in Harriman's thin shelf of "accomplishments" -- most notably her ability to make cozy with rich and influential people, primarily men. An early marriage to Winston Churchill's unimpressive son Randolph was followed by marriages to Broadway producer Leland Hayward and, later, the elderly diplomat and Wall Street heir Averell Harriman. Harriman married well, and she dated well: The men in her life also included CBS founder William Paley and Edward R. Murrow. Her marriage to Averell Harriman gave her the Democratic party connections (and the cash) to become a major Washington social figure and fund-raiser, cultivating Bill Clinton among many others as her friends.

Bedell makes it clear that Harriman's abilities as a gadfly outstrip any others she might possess. "Reflected Glory" is vicious in its small details as well as in its large ones. Did Harriman perhaps possess some unseen talent as a writer? "Her personal correspondence showed scant literary merit," Bedell writes, and as a journalist "her commitment to the craft was thin." In conversation, "she was remembered neither for the originality nor the felicity of her contributions." Was she, then, a woman of bold principle, a political provocateur, on the model of her contemporary Margaret Thatcher? "Her political beliefs shifted along with the men in her life." Then she must have had style? Harriman is variously described as "dumpy" and "a banal milkmaid, a little plump, certainly not beautiful."

It was precisely because she lacked conventionally redeeming traits, that Harriman, Bedell implies, was naturally drawn to politics. "Reflected Glory" is compulsively readable as Bedell details the rake and shovel of Harriman's busy PAC, and the final painful spectacle of her gropings toward respectability -- an ambition which culminated in her appointment as an ambassador in 1993. "A lot of French," remarks a source, "were puzzled."

Solidly researched, smoothly written and full of tangy revelations, "Reflected Glory" is a fascinating study of the triumph of mediocrity -- and mediocrity's particular affinity to late 20th-century American democracy.

Kurt Jensen

Kurt Jensen is a writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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